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Tesla hires yet another chip architecture titan out of Apple’s PA Semi, feeding the rumor that it plans to design its own silicon


If there’s indeed a poaching chess game going on between Tesla and Apple, it would appear the automaker is winning in acquiring quality pieces. Just a few week after we exclusively reported that Tesla hired legendary chip architect Jim Keller as new “Vice-President of Autopilot Hardware Engineering”, we now learn that Keller is joined by former DEC Alpha, PA Semi and until earlier this year Apple Director Peter Bannon.

Before Keller left Apple for AMD in 2012, he and Bannon were leading Apple’s processor development since the Cupertino-based company bought their chip making firm PA Semi in 2008. The duo lead the development of Apple’s A4 and A5 processors, which powered most of the company’s mobile devices from 2010 to 2012. Keller then left to develop the Zen architecture at AMD, but Bannon stuck around and developed several other chips for Apple until leaving for Tesla to join Keller last week.

Bannon, who is named as an inventor on dozens of patents related to processors, is only the latest in Tesla’s series of hires from Apple’s high-level science teams. Here are our exclusive reports on just the most recent hires:

Beyond its implications in furthering the so-called poaching war between Tesla and Apple, Bannon joining Tesla raises a very interesting question: Does Tesla plan to design its own processors?

At first it might sound implausible, but yet the automaker now employs two of the most sought after processor architects working today. Of course, their engineering expertise includes skills useful to Tesla in other departments, but yet it’s not impossible for the company to also exploit their core talent.

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Tesla X-Ray by Super Uber Tesla is implementing a new custom end-to-end platform called ‘Tesla 3DX’ to ramp up for the Model 3 and Tesla Energy

After we published our report of Tesla’s hiring of Keller last month, during the conference call discussing Tesla’s Q4 financial results, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas referenced our report and asked Tesla CEO if it indicates that the automaker would try to make its own processors. The conversation went like this:

Adam Jonas – Morgan Stanley

Hi, everybody. Two quick ones [questions]. First, can you confirm reports that Jim Keller, kind of a legend in the microprocessor world, has joined the company to head Hardware Engineering at Tesla Autopilot? If that’s correct, does that signal that Tesla might be moving to design some of their own silicon?

Elon Musk – Tesla

Well, I think it’s public knowledge that Jim Keller’s joined. We have a lot of talented people that join Tesla all the time. Jim is indicative of that and just, some people get a bit more press than others, but I think the talent level that’s joining Tesla is really incredible. With regard to the latter part of your question, we just… no comment, yeah.

Tesla had already confirmed our report, but either Jonas didn’t know that (and clearly should follow Electrek more closely 😉 ) or he might have tried to link his assertion about Tesla designing its own silicon with something he knew to be true.  Either way Musk didn’t fall for it and refused to comment, which still leaves the door open to the possibility that Tesla could eventually design its own chips.12032073_1681126095453371_5360463112279508856_n

When Tesla first launched the Model S in 2012, it was revealed that NVIDIA’s Tegra processors were powering the center console, infotainment, navigation and instrument-cluster systems in the car. The two companies renewed their partnership for the Model X last year.

NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang is a big fan of the automaker and owns 3 Teslas. During a company event last year, Huang announced a computing platform for self-driving cars called NVIDIA DRIVE PX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk sat down with Huang for a conversation about autonomous vehicles during the event. Musk took the opportunity to praise NVIDIA’s tech:

“What NVIDIA is doing with Tegra is really interesting and really important for self-driving in the future.”

Only the Tegra 3 chip has been confirmed to be in the Model X and although there’s been rumors that Tesla could be using NVIDIA’s DRIVE PX platform to power the Autopilot in its vehicles, there’s no solid evidence to confirm it.

Instead, Tesla is using Mobileye’s EyeQ technology to power the Autopilot’s vision system.

A Bloomberg report came out late last year implying that Tesla could be looking to replace Mobileye’s tech based on an email conversation between Tesla CEO Elon Musk and high-profile hacker George “geohot” Hotz, who is building his own self-driving car platform.

Following the report, Mobileye’s stock price took a 7% hit in a matter of hours, but Tesla came to the rescue and issued a statement calling Mobileye’s tech “best in the world at what it does” and saying that the company plans to “continue using” the firm’s EyeQ vision chips going forward.

Tesla made those comments before hiring both Keller and Bannon, which will possibly raise a few eyebrows at NVIDIA and Mobileye. While it still looks unlikely that Tesla will engage in another resource-consuming project like making its own chips, fabless manufacturing, which means to design silicon in-house while outsourcing its manufacturing, is not impossible either.

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Considering the Autopilot is a “super high priority” project for Tesla, if for some reason the computing platform was to get in the way of achieving full autonomy, it’s not impossible to imagine Tesla deciding to make its own.

Also it’s worth noting that Tesla makes a surprising number of components in-house for an automaker. It is estimated that the company is currently about 80% vertically integrated.

Now as for the “poaching war” between Tesla and Apple, it appears that the number of former senior Apple engineers now on Tesla’s engineering team is growing every month. They recently added Keller and Bannon, but there’s also Apple’s former alloy expert Charles Kuehmann now VP of Materials Engineering at Tesla (and SpaceX which is interesting), Doug Field, former VP of Mac Engineering at Apple and now VP of Engineering at Tesla, and Rich Heley, former Director of Alloy Engineering at Apple and now VP of Products at Tesla.

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  1. Eric - 7 years ago

    Good article, but should be silicon in the title, unless Tesla intends on making implants 🙂

    • Fred Lambert - 7 years ago

      You never know… Thanks, I just realized I’ve been using the words inconsistently in the whole article.

  2. Trev Page - 7 years ago

    No surprise here that Tesla would do their own silicon for AP. Elon had SpaceX develop their own flight computers for a fraction of the cost of what the space industry normally does.

  3. Palandrel - 7 years ago

    Don’t forget that Apple will soon enter this market with its own silicon. So it makes sense for Tesla to position itself to stay a main player in self driving instead of using a me too solution. However, it is going to cost them, they don’t have Apple’s economy of scale that comes from producing hundreds of million of chips each year.

    • Kazedcat - 7 years ago

      They don’t need apple’s scale. If unkown bitcoin startup can design, develop, and deploy custom ASIC. I’m very sure Tesla is big enough. Plus they are planning the production of half a million car with triple redundancy thats 1.5 million. Or if they follow spacex design thats two chip per sensor plus three brains. (6 cameras + 2 radar)*2 + 3 brains = 19 chips per car. Close to 10 million chips per year that’s more than enough scale for custom ASIC

  4. Jim - 7 years ago

    seems an awful long way to go ahead and find such high calibre talent merely for autopilot as so much can be done with all these guys, especially on added collaboration with spacex. i imagine autopilot presents similar, though not as extreme, challenges to guiding a rocket from launch to landing. And with elon’s bent for 1st principles framing who’s to say what parts of either organisation would be beyond the reach of the opportunities that a team like this can reach for.

  5. James Rowland - 7 years ago

    Given SpaceX’s intent to launch a constellation of communication satellites for global Internet connectivity, I’ll be surprised if these guys do not also end up working there.

  6. JC - 7 years ago

    the mobileye chip is integrated into the nvidia drive px architecture
    located inbetween the 2 nvidia chips


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